In December 2010, Warner Brothers finally saw fit to give an official DVD-R release (made to order) of a title I’ve been wanting to see ever since I heard about it, Goodbye My Lady. Basically, this is THE ultimate basenji movie, at least for Hollywood and English-speaking audiences.
Film: Goodbye, My Lady
Director: William A. Wellman
Performers: Walter Brennan, Brandon De Wilde, Phil Harris, Sidney Poitier, My Lady of the Congo (Lady)
Breeds featured: Basenji, English Setter, various Coonhounds
Production Information: Batjac, 1956 (USA)
What is that strange animal 12-year-old Skeeter spied in the Mississippi swamp? It looks like a dog. But it laughs — even cries real tears — instead of barking. Skeeter brings it home… and into the best adventure a boy could ever have. From the beloved novel by James (The Biscuit Eater) Street, Good-bye, My Lady boasts a legendary director (William A. Wellman), real Southern-bayou location shooting and a superb cast that includes Academy Award® winners Walter Brennan and Sidney Poitier, plus Phil Harris and young Brandon de Wilde (Shane, Hud). But perhaps the biggest star in the entire all-star cast is Lady herself, a rare African Basenji. Skeeter certainly can’t resist her. She’s his pride, his responsibility, his best friend. So when Lady’s real owners advertise to find her, the boy is torn between what his heart and his conscience tell him to do. (from WB Site)
STOP HERE FOR SPOILERS.
This is a quintessential coming-of-age story, another canonical example from a rich tradition of animal tales about boys entering into adulthood (or specifically, manhood) by acquiring, training (disciplining), then relinquishing a beloved pet dog. As you might guess from the film’s title, Skeeter eventually has to part with Lady, who has so thoroughly bonded with him by the end that only the most stone-hearted would refuse to wish for an alternate ending.
Apparently, the bond was as real on the set as off. Despite some rough handling at the beginning of the movie (a few smacks and sharp tugs on a thick rope leash made me cringe a little), the basenji and boy had become true friends by the end. It was all the better that My Lady of the Congo, who played the title character and was provided by British breeder Veronica Tudor-Williams’ kennel (along with four other fill-ins who acted as her doubles), became actor Brandon de Wilde’s personal pet after the filming.
I want to guess that most of the film was shot chronologically, in the order of narration. It may have been part of the act, but it seemed that neither boy nor dog really knew how to handle each other at first. The scene where Skeeter captures Lady in a cornfield, aside from being awkwardly composed (stupid wind-blown cornstalks keep getting in the way) and a bit too rushed in execution to develop any satisfactory climax, also presents a most curious bit of basenji lore: these dogs, apparently, are able to shed “real tears.”
I don’t quite get the context for this bit of anthropomorphism. What are we supposed to understand about these tears that make them “real”? Is Lady relieved to be apprehended? Upset? Afraid? or just driven to peevish annoyance by the forced execution of this scene? I’d probably be driven to tears of fright if a strange kid started screaming at me (no matter if they’re shouts of glee) and grabbing me by the face upon first encounter, too! These lessons in how not to handle a basenji were the most cringe-worthy moments to me.
However, by the end of the film, Lady is visibly looking towards Skeeter for her cues, and appears to stay close to his side as a matter of habit, not training. If I have one pet peeve about animal films, it’s when dog and actor do not move together, when they do not physically inhabit the intimate relationship that they are supposed to represent, and when it’s apparent that they’re merely posturing, striking poses that look good when captured in promotional stills, but feel off to anyone who has actually spent time observing human-dog interactions. Goodbye, My Lady manages to make one of the more convincing shows out of their bonding process, probably because that part was real.
So the boy who was a real-life American movie star gets the rare African Basenji dog for keeps in the end — that which was denied to the poor Southern swamp rat growing up in the backwaters of Mississippi. And this point leads me to what I think are the more intriguing themes. The story riffs on ideas of displacement, obscured origins, and both the limiting and the transformative effects of environment on one’s habits and values, opportunities and body of experiences. All of this points towards the grumbling underbelly of racial and social change fomenting in mid-to-late-1950s America.
How does a simple movie about a boy and his dog do all that? Let me try to explain…
The year of filming is 1956. This is quite a few years before the eruption of the Civil Rights Movements in the 1960s, but already you can see notions of change, or at least an idealized fantasy emerging at the level of the mass media. In Goodbye, My Lady, young Sidney Poitier plays a relatively small part as Gates, a neighbor to Skeeter and Uncle Jesse. What’s peculiar about his character is that he is presented as an educated, self-sufficient, sympathetic Black man living on a farm in the rural South. He and his family are friends to Skeeter. He seems to be an independent keeper of his farm, which overflows with plenitude; the property is bursting at the seams with children, chickens, and sweet buttermilk. Gates is possessed with an air of nobility and wisdom that dominates over Skeeter’s innocence and makes him a brotherly surrogate and adult confidante, a foil to Uncle Jesse’s ignorance and illiteracy. Yet, Gates’ character is completely naturalized and included with no contextualization, as if Gates-like figures were just as much a part of the cultural landscape as orphaned white boys and snaggle-toothed uncles. They are all mapped together onto this southern “folk” topography, and by virtue of how neatly all these life-threads interweave, they are all given essential, critical weight. This is no small feat of imagination for a locale set deep in the heart of the segregationist South!
In one scene, it is in fact Skeeter who becomes the curio when all the Watson kids (Gates’ siblings? Relatives?) congregate to greet him. “Whatcha gawkin’ at? Think ya never seen a white boy before,” clucks the Big Mama figure at the Gates household, as she tells the kids to scat. In a stark instant, Otherness is inverted, and the objectifying lens is turned onto the little white kid… the most “normal” thing one can possibly behold in American visual iconography.
This almost throwaway scene gestures back to the very beginning of the film, where Skeeter is made exceptional because he can’t really say he knows where he comes from. Orphaned young and passed along to his Uncle Jesse to raise (instead of the orphanage) at the advocacy of local friends, Skeeter’s ties to the land are the result of fortune, not fate, and certainly not birthright. In truth, he too has always been a little out of place, and had to become a part of the land through the kind of backwoods education that only his uncle could provide. But just as surely as we understand the tender act of reading bedtime stories to his illiterate uncle, we know that Skeeter will mature to have an enlarged capacity to accept more than what can be sourced from the immediate environs. Anchors unmoored, one can more easily be set adrift.
The pulp magazines he reads are another site of convergence. Not only do they serialize the stories that comprise Skeeter’s cultural education, bringing the outside world to his one room cabin (cowboys and spacemen and, no doubt, jungle explorers hacking through colonial tracts in India and Africa), but it is in their side columns that they discover Lady’s true identity. The lost dog print ad casts a net out to a wide reading audience in the hopes that someone would be able to recognize her; it seems a miracle that someone actually does. Thus, similar inexplicable forces of chance account for Lady’s presence. We learn that she actually belongs to a breeder in Connecticut, who sends someone to claim her and return her to her “rightful” destiny of breeding purebred puppies and dining daily on meat in an upper-class Yankee kennel. No word, though, on why they were muckin’ around in the Pascagoula Swamps to begin with.
Grover: How’s she eating?
Uncle Jesse: Same as us. Oatmeal, bacon fat, and things like that.
Grover: *sigh* A valuable dog like Isis should have meat once a day.
Uncle Jesse: Well now, I do declare. Meat every day, huh? And here we’ve been feedin’ her the same sort of stuff we eat.
The joke here is that Yankees are so different from Southerners, even their dogs aren’t on the same level. In light of that exchange, the above screenshot, which shows Uncle Jesse talking to the breeder’s envoy Grover, is all the more poignant. It does not accord with Uncle Jesse’s line of vision. He can actually see over the porch railing, and so the man’s face should not be obscured from his point of view. But to the film viewer, this obstruction symbolizes how completely inscrutable the Northerner’s motives seem to someone on Uncle Jesse’s side. It is the difficulty of imagining the total “face” of someone whose very conception of “value,” and how to affirm value, is so entirely distant from your own.
But with no other way to resolve these differences in the context of a dog movie from 1956, the film must end on a most heartbreaking, unsatisfying note. Lady goes back up North, but only after the Yankee breeder acknowledges (unconvincingly, in my opinion) that he’s torn up about separating the boy and his dog, too. Skeeter takes the reward money he earned for Lady, and puts it towards a set of new teeth for his uncle (“Roebuckers”) and a 20-gauge shotgun for himself — these objects that represented the very most that he could imagine for himself, before Lady. He is offered a friend’s English Setter. “He barks and everything. Like I’m used to.” It’s an interesting consolation prize considering the Setter’s birding skills had been far outstripped by the Basenji earlier in the film, so it’s clearly insufficient to the gaping loss of Lady. For a while, Skeeter had found satisfaction in possessing and loving something completely otherworldly, ancient and “older than Moses,” and downright exotic. For his passage into manhood to be predicated on quelling his desires for something that he can’t have not just because it doesn’t belong to him, but because it doesn’t belong to his neck of the woods at all, is, well… frankly, crushing. Despite the triumphant cup of black coffee that inaugurates Skeeter into the “sad, glad” brethren of men, the predominant emotional tone that undercuts the conclusion is still quite sad. And the film does nothing to mask this.
So what makes this film fairly progressive for its time, aside from the inclusion of a sympathetic and articulate African American character, is the inertia of its rhetoric that allows its characters to desire something more. There is no true comfort in retreating to the safe and familiar when the fantasy of something different has already been imagined.
Thus I submit that in this innocent, some would even say trivial little film, you can perceive the slightest whisper of the wind of change stirring from afar. And whether or not you agree with me or were able to follow along in this post that ended up being about three times longer than originally slated, this is the idea that will stick in my mind, because this is what makes the film interesting to me… other than, of course, the fact that it stars a Basenji.
The scent of change — perhaps just what this little Basenji was pointing towards.